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The pill: Prophylactic against cancer?


4 Star

The pill: Prophylactic against cancer?

Our Review Summary

Given the brevity of this segment, it does a reasonable job of conveying the basic findings of a study appearing in The Lancet: that women taking birth control pills have a reduced risk of ovarian cancer, and the protection persists even after the pill is stopped.

This is a significant study whose findings are not particularly controversial, so a simple description of the findings is adequate.  

Even in such a brief segment, however, viewers would have been better served with:

  • An additional expert source to provide for perspective on what this means for viewers who have taken or plan to take oral contraceptives 
  • Some context to help them understand the magnitude of ovarian cancer in the population
  • More details, such as how many women per 1,000 taking the pill would be expected to get ovarian cancer compared to those who did not.  It is not difficult to include a line about absolute risk information.
  • A mention of the risks of stroke and thrombosis related to oral contraceptives


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Costs of the pills may not be significant, but because the implication of the story is that women may now and in the future consider oral contraceptives because of this newly-found benefit, cost is an important consideration – and was not covered.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The report mentions that taking the pill for five years or more can reduce ovarian cancer risk by half, and that protection can last a lifetime. This is an overly simple summary of the results.

Viewers would have been better served by a few more details, such as how many women per 1,000 taking the pill would be expected to get ovarian cancer compared to those who did not.  It is not difficult to include a line about absolute risk information. 

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?


The segment properly mentions the birth control pill’s occasional side effects of blood clots and a slight added risk of breast cancer.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


The Lancet study (summary here) upon which the segment is based is a meta-analysis of many epidemiological studies conducted worldwide over several decades. While the broadcast does not provide much detail about the methodology, it describes it adequately. 

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


The facts used to describe ovarian cancer–22,000 cases per year and 15,000 deaths–are accurate and dramatic. But without context, they may exaggerate the relative impact of ovarian cancer. Nonetheless, we’ll give the story the benefit of the doubt on this. 


Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The segment quotes one independent expert from the American Cancer Society twice. Another source should have been used.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Applicable

The segment focuses on findings about oral contraception and cancer risk, so discussion of other options for birth control or ovarian cancer risk reduction are not necessary.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The anchor lead-in reminds us that birth control pills are "widely used by a lot of women."

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Applicable

Birth control pills are widely used, so no claims of novelty are made.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


There is no evidence the segment relied solely or largely on a news release.

Total Score: 5 of 8 Satisfactory


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